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I’m still panicking, still looking for the cure

Onstage in front of thousands, pushing through stage fright
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Patrick Pentland, January 23, 2014 3:53:01 PM

Aside from writing for Bell, I play music for a living in the band Sloan. I have had bouts of anxiety that have caused severe stage fright over the years, and no wonder: some of the triggers of anxiety or panic attacks are flashing lights, confined spaces, and loud noises. Basically the things that constitute a rock show. Knowing that I will be stepping onto a stage, and immersing myself in the ingredients for a panic attack, is enough to cause one before I’m even in the building.

I have tried regulating my diet, exercising, and learning breathing techniques, all of which I have done very poorly. Like most people, change does not come easily for me, and although I know I need to get better at these things, there’s almost a part of me that is afraid to change. What if changing my habits doesn’t help? What if there is no real cure? I often feel that, even though I’m going through something horrible, at least I know what it is.

January 28 is Bell Let’s Talk day. For every text, mobile and long distance call, tweet using #BellLetsTalk, or Facebook like of the Bell Let’s Talk image, the company will donate 5¢ towards mental health initiatives. The idea is simple: that talking about mental health is the first, and perhaps most crucial, step in helping people deal with the issues that are effecting their lives. I have written before about my battles with anxiety and stress. I’m happy to play a part in that conversation again by sharing my story.

I have had bouts of anxiety throughout my life, but when I first started to experience it, I didn’t know what was happening to me. Looking back, there were events, certainly as an adult, where I had been mysteriously sick, unable to get out of bed, when I was supposed to be doing something I was dreading. I once had to walk out of a dentist’s office because I felt I was going to faint, despite the fact that I was simply having a check up. I was supposed to testify in court after witnessing a fight, and had to leave before I was called up because I was so ill I was sure I was going to vomit on the witness stand. I once spent several hours in bed while a party took place in my apartment, I was so afraid to simply hang out with my friends. Even writing this is giving me anxiety.

When my stage fright or panic attacks start to get the better of me, it can be very distressing. If I’m on stage, I can be overwhelmed by the idea that, while I want to leave the stage, I can’t. It’s a combination of not wanting to appear weak, not wanting to let my bandmates down, and not wanting to give in to the fear. If I was working in an office, for instance, I would be able to take a breather, step out for a few minutes, and no one would really notice or care. But playing a gig, where people have payed good money to see a full show, I can’t just let them down and rip them off. Sure, most people might understand, but in letting them down, I would be letting myself down.

I am not alone. Over 4 million Canadians suffer from anxiety disorders, and while they are highly treatable, most don’t seek help. I have sought help, having spent several years taking Effexor, a drug that had side effects I eventually decided were too much for me to handle. I won’t go into detail, as some of you might be taking it, and I don’t want to create false symptoms, but I felt the drug had run its course with me, and I weaned myself off of it. The fact that I had to wean myself off of the drug says something. Cold turkey could have had dire consequences.

By the time I had quit Effexor, I felt that my anxiety had levelled off. And I was right. I was basically anxiety free for several years. Sure, I had stress about basic issues like money or the health and well being of my kids, but nothing that would make me have to lay down, or send me rushing to the bathroom to vomit. That would come back…

…two years later. I was playing a sold-out hometown show in Toronto, stepped onto the stage feeling cocky and sure of myself, a rock star in every way, until I saw the audience. They were no different than the audience the night before in some other town, except I knew some of the people out there, and I suddenly felt completely exposed and analyzed.

Of course, I wasn’t being analyzed, stared at, or judged, and certainly not by my friends, but that is what my brain was screaming at me. My arms went numb, my right leg kept shaking, and I felt that I had to leave the stage, but the walk was too far. I was trapped, and there was nothing I could do about it. I told my bandmates that I was freaking out, and they told me I could do whatever I needed to do. I didn’t walk off, I finished the show, but the fear didn’t leave me, even afterwards, in part because I had to play the same venue the next night, and was convinced I would have the same problem to deal with. And I did. And the night after that, and for many, many shows since.

But I have to push forward. I have, as of writing this, never walked off stage, or refused to go on. Like many who suffer from stage fright, panic attacks, or general anxiety, I have crutches that I use. A stiff drink can help, although not always; sometimes it makes things worse. The support of those around me, knowing that they know what’s going on, and that they will understand if I have to leave the stage, also helps. Often the fear fades as the show progresses, and sometimes there is no fear at all.

I have found that distracting myself, keeping busy, can help. Most of my anxiety builds while I’m waiting to do something, like waiting to go on stage, or waiting in a doctor’s office.  If I can time things just right, I can simply walk into a venue and onto the stage. That is rarely possible, but I try to time things to minimize the opportunity for fear to build.

I am starting to explore mindfulness, acupuncture, and hypnosis, although I have yet to have a session in any. I have downloaded several apps that teach breathing exercises. One (Headspace) has a Buddhist monk guide you through a series of ten ten-minute sessions. It has helped at times, but I want to actually take some classes, except the thought of going somewhere, and sitting in a room full of strangers, stresses me out in itself. The irony.

I have booked an appointment with an acupuncturist who is going to come to my home, so I don’t have to wait and have the fear grow. I’m hoping that this, plus endeavouring to exercise regularly, and eat better (it’s almost 2 pm and I still haven’t eaten anything today, much to my girlfriend’s dismay) will help me manage the anxiety, and eventually kick it out of my life. I’ll let you know next year how that worked out.

Photo: Steve Krecklo

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